Could my dog have allergies? How would I know?
Allergies are very common in our best friends, and often lead to discomfort of both us and them. Allergies are a normal immune response to an abnormal stimulus, e.g. pollen or food. This means that their immune system is seeing something normal as a threat that needs to be eliminated.
This often looks like itchy skin, hair loss, ear infections, hot spots, licking paws, and full anal glands. Dogs with allergies are especially prone to skin yeast and bacterial infections, as the normal skin barrier is altered by the inflammation. Any infections will need to be treated along with the allergies in order to see improvement of clinical signs. Infections will come back if we do not control the allergies, though.
Other diseases, such as thyroid disease, ring worm, mites, etc. can look like allergies, so your veterinarian will want to rule out all other causes of skin issues before starting treatments.
What are the types of allergies my dog could have?
We often categorize allergies into two classes: food intolerance and environmental allergy. Food intolerance in dogs does lead to itchy skin, oddly enough, so this is a distinct possibility. Environmental allergies can be further broken down into various types, and we will talk about each of these in detail in this blog.
Food intolerances can occur at any age. They can happen at any age, even if the brand or flavor of food you are using does not change. Food intolerances are present year round, and tend not to get worse with the season. When a dog is allergic to a food, it is almost always the protein source. The most common food allergy in our canine companions is beef, followed by chicken. Grain and flavoring allergies are EXTREMELY rare and often have a genetic component (e.g. celiac’s disease).
The most effective way to test for a food allergy is a strict diet trial. This means feeding a veterinary grade, prescription hypoallergentic diet (e.g. Hills Z/D, Purina HA, or Royal Canin Ultamino) for 8-10 weeks. A strict diet trial means NO treats, NO food outside fo this diet, NO table scraps, NO getting into the trash, nothing outside of this diet. Non-prescription diets can contain traces of other foods, so for the purpose of the diet trial, you should choose a prescription diet. After the diet trial, it is appropriate to try other foods, to see how your pet responds. It does often take the entire 8 week period before we see results, which is a VERY long time! If, after 8 weeks, there is no improvement after 8 weeks, we can assume that there is no food allergy component.
These diets are often good for the coat, low fat, and very healthy! However, they don’t always taste the best. They are also good diets for early kidney disease, IBD, and many other diseases. Please talk to your veterinarian if you are interested in a hypoallergentic diet for your pup.
What about environmental allergies?
Environmental allergens are common in dogs. They are often seasonal, meaning they get worse during certain months. It may be worse in any season, but spring and summer are most common. Environmental allergies also include allergies to flea and tick saliva. Even a single flea bite can cause a huge reaction. Thus, it is extremely important that any pet, especially those with allergies, are on regular flea and tick preventatives. The signs of an environmental allergy are the same as a food allergy, although food allergies do sometimes cause diarrhea or vomiting. Dogs may have a combination of both food and environmental allergies and may require a combination of treatments.
There are many ways to treat allergies in dogs. We often start with topical treatments, such as shampoos or mousses. Shampoos are a great way to move the allergen off of your dog while providing anti-bacterial and anti-fungal treatments. If you are unable to bathe your pup, a mousse is a great start. Sometimes we also will consider using veterinary wipes, if the affected area is small. Fish oil added to your pet’s diet can improve coat and fur health, and improve the skin’s natural barriers. As a side benefit, they also improve joint and renal health! When considering fish oil, please only use those formulated for pets and ask your veterinarian for her trusted brands.
For dogs that do not respond well to the baths, we recommend oral or injectable medication. One oral allergy medication in dogs is called Apoquel. This is a great place to start to reduce allergies. It must be used regularly, throughout the season or year round. Side effects are rare; vomiting is most common. Rarely, it can affect the white blood cells, so we do require annual blood work prior to considering Apoquel. Cytopoint is an indictable allergy medication, which works slightly differently: it actually blocks the itch receptor rather than reducing the immune response. One injection generally lasts about 1 month, but the duration varies for some patients. Both of these medications start to work very very quickly, generally less than 48 hours.
What about immunotherapy? What is that?
Immunotherapy is a wonderful option for some pets. This is the only way to ‘cure’ your dog’s allergies. These train your dog’s immune system to stop responding to it’s allergen. We start with a comprehensive blood test to see what precisely your pet is allergic to. Then the company that does the blood test will create a ‘profile’ for your companion. This profile is then used to create an immunotherapy mixture. This mixture will either be injected under under your pet’s skin a few times per week (the first doses MUST be with a veterinarian, but after the first few doses, you can be trained at home) or drops can be put under your dog’s tongue twice per day. Although these must be continued life-long, they work extremely well, so long as it is administered regularly. Missing doses can lead to a lack of control, however, so it is very important to stay committed.
In Severe Cases. . .
For dogs with severe allergies, we sometimes consider immunosuppressants, such as steroids. These work extremely well to control allergies, however, they have many side effects. They often increase hunger, thirst, and can change behavior. They increase the risk of infection, heart disease, diabetes, and many more. We only use these in the most severe cases, and they require regular check ups with your veterinarian to be safe.